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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Ben Radford reviews Mad Max: Fury Road - and some thoughts about media franchises

Ben Radford has a good review here. Watch out for spoilers!

Toward the end, he has some interesting observations about tried and true franchises, with a plethora of movies coming out this year from the likes of Terminator, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park:

As I walked out of the theater, however, I noticed ads for upcoming films whose franchises began many decades ago, including Jurassic World, Star Wars, and the Terminator. As long as there's an audience for these characters and stories, the films will continue to be remade and inspire sequels (don't think for a moment that Peter Jackson's seemingly insuperable version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy won't be superceded in ten or twenty years by a new director with a different vision and a whole new suite of computer-generated tools at her disposal; similarly, the next generation will almost certainly have a Harry Potter not played by Daniel Radcliffe). There's nothing inherently wrong with this, aside from the countless new and original screenplays that would make great films if the studios were willing to take a chance on something that hadn't already proven to be a moneymaker.


Yup. I think some of these franchises have become so popular, and continue to generate stories, because they each speak to something deep in us - or at something least deep in Western culture. Just what that might be will vary in each case, but they have all become culturally resonant, iconic, almost mythic narratives, and it is difficult to create new stories and characters to compete with them for the public's imaginative investment.

Still, it happens. Look at the iconic status that has now been achieved by Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire, if you prefer the prose fiction version). There will always be new ideas for characters, worlds, and situations that also achieve this kind of near-mythic status, but it's a challenge. Many very good ideas will likely fail just because of timing, failures of execution, and the like. But others will succeed imaginatively and commercially.

For a time, I wrote media tie-in novels with a bit of success - at least enough success to show that I can do the job competently and that I sort of know what I'm talking about with all this. The Terminator trilogy that I produced about 12 years ago gained some credibility with fans, but my King Kong novel, Kong Reborn, really had no impact - not because there was anything terribly wrong with it (I believe) so much as its timing. It appeared shortly after the tragic death of Byron Preiss, who had commissioned it, and shortly before his publishing empire went bankrupt. (Meanwhile, my main interests were moving in other directions.)

I'm glad to have had the opportunity to work with some of our era's great iconic characters and to create some characters of my own for their worlds. As for King Kong... Radford's point certainly applies. I expect that sooner or later someone will have another go at a King Kong movie, superseding the rather impressive 2005 one directed by Peter Jackson. Meanwhile, there's a sort of prequel, Kong: Skull Island, scheduled for release in 2017. I'll look forward to it.

Currently reading Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction by H. Bruce Franklin

This 1980 study of Robert A. Heinlein and his work is still valuable, though Heinlein went on to publish another four novels, including a very solid SF adventure novel, Friday, and an amusing, Hugo-nominated fantasy, Job. Nothing about that late body of work, however, invalidates Franklin's approach.

Franklin is especially good at explicating Heinlein's fiction against the background of socio-political currents in the US during the period from the 1930s to the 1970s. Sometimes his readings seem politicized to the extent of overreaching and distorting, but Franklin usually wears his Marxist political ideology lightly (and where it does show through, it leads him to opinions, such as those relating to the ills of post-war US foreign policy, that actually strike me as persuasive).

Some of the gems include a careful account of why I Will Fear No Evil (perhaps my least favourite Heinlein book, and Franklin seems to dislike it even more) found and entertained a large audience, and a detailed, relatively sympathetic, thematic analysis of The Number of the Beast. The latter is a book that I should dislike on principle, with its endless self-reference and apparent self-indulgence... and yet, the characters are fun and likeable, and the story can be enjoyed on its own terms if you're sufficiently a fan of Heinlein's earlier fiction and the other SF and fantasy worlds that are endlessly referenced. Someone approaching it without that background would, I imagine, be hopelessly lost and quickly out of patience with it.

I wasn't sure how useful a 35-y.o. critical study of Heinlein would be. I'd dipped into Franklin's book many years ago (I think... I read a lot of SF criticism in some earlier phases of my life), but it made no lasting impression. However, it does offer thoughtful, plausible perspectives on Heinlein's fiction, identifying elements that might be elided in less historically and politically savvy readings. It is written straightforwardly - to provide information and express ideas, rather than impress with its author's cleverness and erudition - and it will have insights for almost any student or fan of Heinlein's work. It's fitting that this is still considered an important book its field.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hugo Awards voters packet

I've just downloaded most of what is in the Hugo Voters Packet, which became available to members of the World Science Fiction Convention a couple of days ago. Although it's now most unlikely that I'll make it to the Worldcon in Spokane (a pity, but that's the way it goes), I do intend to vote for the Hugo Awards, at least in what I still think of as the main categories: i.e., the various categories of prose fiction.

I'll be reading as much of the material as I can, and I'll be voting squarely on what seem to me the merits of what I read. As is well known, there has been much controversy over the Hugos this year, and some people are even urging that we all vote for No Award in many of the categories. In my opinion, that would be an extreme reaction. It's unfortunate if some outstanding material has not ended up on the nomination lists because of politicized campaigning by some parties, but as long as there is material that I consider good enough to deserve an award I'll vote for it.

The Hugos have always been partly a popularity contest - i.e. popularity within the amorphous (but somewhat consistent) group of people who join the Worldcon from year to year. Very often, awards have been won by work that was probably not the best of the year, judged by the criteria that professional critics might use. And often, I expect, some deserving work has been overlooked. (That certainly applies to other popular awards with which I have some experience!)

Whatever the extent of the genuine problems, there has been a massive overreaction this year by a group of people (or, seemingly, two rather different groups of people) who are disenchanted.

I can think that those people have greatly exaggerated whatever real problems existed with the Hugos - and that they have made things worse by introducing an unprecedented level of blatant, politicized campaigning - without  wanting to take part in a campaign of retaliation that could destroy the awards. Further: I can think that those people are probably wrong, misguided, thinking about the issues ahistorically, acting counterproductively, etc., while also thinking that they, or at least most of them, are decent, sincere individuals who are doing their (misguided) best and may even have identified some good material that would normally be overlooked. As to the latter, we'll see. Meanwhile, some of these people have been subjected to personal vilification and abuse, harassment, and even death threats; there is utterly no place for any of this.

Once again, in any event, I plan to play it straight. I will vote for material on its merits, and I'll try to review some of it here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road - shortish review with various vague spoilers

You are warned about the vague spoilers.

Okay, I loved this movie, though it will not be for everyone. Most of the action consists of two long, epic, expertly directed road battles. The pace seldom lets up, and if this causes a problem it's just that the various crashes, gunshots, explosions, and hand-to-hand beatings take place with such unrelenting speed and density that you need to concentrate to keep up.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a quintessence of its franchise - think of the vehicular battle scenes in Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome dialed up to eleven.

Indeed, if this movie had appeared in the late 1980s we might have wondered what was the point. Although it is even better than its predecessors in its loud, catastrophic, metal-wrenching effects - all set against a stark, hot, dusty desert backdrop - there is a sense in which it would once have been simply more of the same, or even a kind of devolution. But appearing thirty years after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Fury Road is not so much a repetition or a dumbing down as a brutally beautiful distillation.

Importantly, the movie stands on its own. Anything you need to know about the background is conveyed transparently enough, without a need to see any of the earlier instalments of the series. Thus, it's an entry point: younger viewers could watch it, then go back and enjoy the original three movies, treating them more or less as prequels.

The events of Fury Road could, indeed, take place at any time after the original Mad Max. I.e., there is little to suggest that they happen after the events of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: for all we know, they could happen even before Mad Max II, or between it and Beyond Thunderdome. This is not about further development of Max Rockatansky as a character so much as another example of Max getting caught up in a series of events in which he emerges as a culture hero - contributing to one of the new, more civilized societies that supersede the brutal epoch of warlords following a nuclear apocalypse triggered by warfare over oil.

If anything, Max seemed younger to me than he did in Beyond Thunderdome (though Mel Gibson was somewhat younger at the time than Tom Hardy is now). Messing things up for anyone who wants internal consistency and realism, it becomes clear that a considerable time (seemingly a couple of decades or more) has passed since the events of Mad Max... and yet, the hero does not seem much older. Never mind: it has never been crucial to this franchise that we are able to reconcile the larger framework of events in a literal way. More generally, the Mad Max franchise thrives on symbolism and visual aesthetics rather than any commitment to continuity.

As is now widely known, the plot of Fury Road involves an effort to rescue a handful of "wives" (basically sex slaves) of a crazy theocratic warlord, Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Burn, who also played the Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Immortan Joe is, more or less, the Australian desert's answer to Darth Vader.

The five beautiful, scantily-clad young women (scarcely, it appears, more than adolescent girls) are initially timid and helpless (not to mention more or less interchangeable) as spectacular battles are fought over possession of them. As events continue, however, they become much more than eye candy for the gaze of whoever is interested: they are gradually differentiated as individuals, while also being shown as pulling themselves together, doing their best to assist in the running battles, and gaining in determination, grit, and competence.

Charlize Theron co-stars as Imperator Furiosa, a high-ranking functionary for Immortan Joe who commandeers his massive "war rig" to transport herself and the wives to safety. Furiosa is a kickass strategist and warrior, though she is not a match for Max himself when they initially come to blows. That episode aside, it's refreshing to see such a formidable female character (think of the Australian desert's answer to Alien's Warrant Officer Ripley). Theron/Furiosa never quite steals the show from Hardy's impressive version of Mad Max, but she is a powerful, likewise impressive, off-sider for him.

Even more refreshing, perhaps, are the tough, brave women from whose clan Furiosa was stolen years before (when she was only a child). Just for once, in a Hollywood movie, we see women of middle (and older) years represented as competent planners, culture builders, and fighters.

Amongst it all, however, Max is the dominant figure. As in the previous movies, he is a complex, dangerous, yet essentially decent man: he is tortured by what he has seen and done in a terrifying past, extraordinarily competent in all the skills and ways needed for physical struggle and survival, and devastatingly destructive to his enemies. Again - as in the previous movies - his talents are all important in defeating the crazies and warlords, enabling a better society to come about. But (again, as in the earlier movies) he does not take part in the new social order for which he has been a catalyst and a liberator. As he edges off at the end, with barely an acknowledgment from the other survivors, he appears doomed to go on roaming the red-and-brown desert, finding sustenance where he can, and endlessly clashing with motorized barbarians and evildoers.

As I observed a decade ago, writing about Mad Max and the Mad Max franchise for The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, "The old civilization had gone, and there seems to be no place for such men in any new one that he has helped bring about."

Latest on Box Office Mojo - Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, and more

The US Box Office this past weekend was dominated by the new musical comedy Pitch Perfect 2, which rode all over Mad Max: Fury Road. The latter nonetheless made a whopping $45.5 million over the weekend, as shown in the actual figures for the weekend (which update/correct the figures in the article I first linked to).

All the box office figures for Avengers: Age of Ultron show it not doing quite as well in the US domestic box office as the original Avengers movie, though it still looks headed for half a billion or more dollars. What interests me about all the figures, though, isn't any of this - it's the monstrous figure tucked away of nearly $160 million for Age of Ultron in its first six days in China. This continues the trend for China to become an enormous, expanding market for Hollywood action movies, especially, but not solely, superhero movies. These are now being aimed largely at the Asian markets, especially China, but also Japan and South Korea - with increasing use of settings in those countries, sometimes with local star actors, and with care taken not to offend local sensibilities.